Poem of the Week, by Czeslaw Milosz

IMG_3585Last night I wandered around a downtown park filled with strange, beautiful, confounding, mesmerizing art: dancers, sculptors, glass blowers, painters, musicians, weavers, poets, mask makers. It was nightfall in the city. Skyscrapers glowed around the periphery of the park, light rail trains glided by, and storm clouds gathered and dispersed overhead. At one point I sat on the base of a sculpture and took it all in, the voices and laughter and absorption on the faces of the crowd.

Somehow there was a stillness to the whole scene, and a stillness in me too. No one around me was familiar, but my heart ached because I wanted to give something to them all. A conversation with a friend last week came back to me, in which she said she craved connection above all, and how there was both pain and relief in accepting that it didn’t have to come from romance. This morning I woke up and remembered this poem, by the incomparable Milosz.

 

Love, by Czeslaw Milosz

Love means to look at yourself
the way one looks at distant things
for you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
without knowing it, from various ills–
a bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
so that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

For more information about Czeslaw Milosz, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Margaret Hasse

Steuben, looking northOld friend, it has been decades since that last summer before college, the last time I ever lived at home. But when I return to visit my parents and drive by the street where you once lived, I remember you. I remember rain on a canvas roof, darkness all around, the silent sleeping breath of other friends. I remember how surprised I was that someone wanted to kiss me –me?–and I remember your gentleness. Let me tell you now that you were the one who first showed me how touch could open up a new world. At seventeen I could not have known how the memory of that fleeting sweetness would sustain me in future dark times. This achingly beautiful poem brought back the memory of you.   

 

High School Boyfriend, by Margaret Hasse

You are hometown.
You are all my favorite places
the last summer I grew up.
Every once in a while
I write you
in my head
to ask how Vietnam
and a big name college
came between us.
We tried to stay in touch
through the long distance,
the hum and fleck of phone calls.

It was inevitable
that I should return
to the small prairie town
and find you
pumping gas, driving a truck, measuring lumber,
and we’d exchange
weather talk,
never able to break through words
and time to say simply:
“Are you as happy
as I wanted you to be?”

And still I am stirred
by musky cigarette smoke
on a man’s brown suede jacket.
Never having admitted the tenderness
of your hands, I feel them now
through my skin.
Parking on breezy nights,
in cars, floating passageways,
we are tongue and tongue like warm cucumbers.
I would walk backwards
along far country roads
through late evenings cool as moving water,
heavy as red beer,
to climb into that August.

In the dark lovers’ lanes
you touched my face
and found me here.

 

 

For more information on Margaret Hasse, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Eileen Sheehan

Garvin and meAn upstairs cupboard in my house holds three cardboard boxes filled with letters from my friend Garvin Wong. For the eighteen years of our friendship, beginning when I was in my thirties and he in his fifties, we exchanged hundreds and hundreds of letters. His were typed on an old typewriter that could have used a new ribbon, mine were printed out from computers, first by dot-matrix and then on lasers. 

Before I was a published writer, frustrated that no one seemed to want to read what I wrote, I used to print out my stories, copy them at Kinko’s, and then leave them lying around town in laundromats and coffee shops. One of my sisters gave one of them to a late-night talk radio host in Manhattan who read the story on air and then gave his listeners my post office box address. The box was soon flooded with letters, one of them from Garvin. Something about that first letter, typed on his ancient typewriter, moved me, and I wrote back. 

Garvin was a quarter-century older than me. He lived his entire life in Queens, most of it in the house he grew up in and where he cared for his parents until they died. He was a dentist and he worked in his uncle’s Chinatown dental office. He also volunteered at a free dental clinic and worked at a pediatric dental clinic. He loved children. When he found out I had three small children, he began sending them gifts: T-shirts, little trinkets he thought they might like, special Chinese candies. Each year on the lunar New Year, a box of red-bean paste cookies would arrive. He knew how much I love ginger, and every few months ginger, in multiple forms, showed up on the doorstep: ginger candy, dried ginger, ginger cookies, ginger tea. Garvin was a native English speaker but he also spoke Cantonese, and I understand rudimentary Mandarin. We used to celebrate our love of Chinese by sprinkling it throughout our notes, the characters for love, peace and ginger chief among them. 

Years went by. Garvin met my whole family and began to spend Thanksgiving with my sister Holly in New Jersey, where every year he brought his own carving knife to her house, carrying it on the subway, so that he could carve the turkey. It took him an hour, so precise was he, and she nicknamed him “Carvin’ Garvin.” Whenever I was in New York, he would arrange an elaborate meal in Chinatown, complete with handmade menus full of punned names for each course (he loved puns and wordplay in general) and a theme for each dinner. Afterward we would wander around Chinatown, stopping here and there so that he could fill his backpack with fresh fruit and groceries. Garvin always wore a backpack, and the backpack was usually filled with empty plastic containers so that he could order lots of food and take the leftovers home for the rest of the week. 

More years went by. In one of his letters, he mentioned that someone had offered him a seat on the subway: “I’m getting on.” In another, he said that he thought of himself as my adoptive, second father. After he came to visit us –the first time he had been on a plane in 37 years– he wrote to say that he had seen a pretty flight attendant in the airport and “It makes me wish I were 20 years younger.”

My letters became more frequent; he was old now, and his twice-weekly trips from Queens to Chinatown were harder and harder. He wrote of resting at the top and bottom of the subway steps, and how difficult it was to do things like mop up his basement, which tended to flood. He wrote of how his neighbor Foon watched out for him and helped him with heavy packages. 

Then came the day when he called from the hospital to say that he had fallen in his home, and how Foon had found him after almost two days. That he was injured and would be in rehab for quite a time before he could return home. My sister and I got him an iPad so that we could Facetime. We found a wonderful eldercare specialist who helped coordinate care and visits. But in the hospital his never-diagnosed or treated diabetes came to light, and then his foot was amputated, and everything went downhill. 

I sent him a letter in which I recounted our life together, the many years we had known each other, the small adventures we had had, the love and caring he had shown me and my family. I told him that if and when he was ready to go, he should know that my love surrounded him. His heart stopped beating a day later. Someone else decided to resuscitate him, but he died alone in the ICU the next night. I was not with him. I wish I had been with him. It haunts me that he died without me. 

Garvin’s death brought a sense of loss that I thought I was ready for, but I wasn’t. In the five years since his death, I have talked to him in my mind. All the questions I never asked him, out of respect or because I hadn’t thought of them: Had he ever been in love? Had he, with his liveliness around children, the way he lit up in their presence, ever wanted to be a father? I remembered his last visit to us, when he was sitting across the kitchen table from me and looked visibly tired and old, and it came to me that it was possible, maybe probable, he had never held someone’s hand. That no one had ever touched him that way. I reached across the table and picked his hand up and held it in my own. He said nothing. Neither did I.

Maybe he was much lonelier than I ever knew. Maybe he wasn’t. It troubles me that I don’t know the answers to these questions, and it troubles me that I never asked. It troubles me that even now, in the wake of my loss, I still hold questions inside me for and about the living people I most love in the world. How well can we ever truly know each other? What do we hold in our hearts that we won’t, or don’t, talk about?

In his last months, Garvin told me he had been talking to his father in his mind, and asking for advice. That, unlike his mother, his father had been a comfort to him, a gentle, kind man who always listened to his painfully shy son. Who loved him as he was. This beautiful poem below brought Garvin back to me, along with his father, who died before I ever met his son.

 

My Father, Long Dead, by Eileen Sheehan
        

My father, long dead,
has become air

Become scent
of pipe smoke, of turf smoke, of resin

Become light
and shade on the river

Become foxglove,
buttercup, tree bark

Become corncrake
lost from the meadow

Become silence,
places of calm

Become badger at dusk,
deer in the thicket

Become grass
on the road to the castle

Become mist
on the turret

Become dark-haired hero in a story
written by a dark-haired child

 

 

For more information on Eileen Sheehan, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Dante di Stefano

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Write about something you’ve never told anyone before. That was the prompt a few years ago, given to a tableful of sundry people sitting in a library far from the big city. You have twelve minutes. I’ll let you know when you have two minutes left. Pens to paper. Fingertips on keyboards. We went around the room and read aloud, everyone listening intently. 

One older man read about the night in Vietnam when his best friend died in his arms. How he tried to keep him from dying. How they were both nineteen. How he had whispered to him and his friend whispered back as he bled to death. How he had thought of that boy every day of his life since. When he finished, we were all silent. He looked up at us in confusion and wonder. I have never told anyone about this before, he said, not even my wife.

 

Prompts (for high school teachers who teach poetry), by Dante di Stefano

Write about walking into the building
as a new teacher. Write yourself hopeful.
Write a row of empty desks. Write the face
of a student you’ve almost forgotten;
he’s worn a Derek Jeter jersey all year.
Do not conjecture about the adults
he goes home to, or the place he calls home.
Write about how he came to you for help
each October morning his sophomore year.
Write about teaching Othello to him;
write Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven.

Write about reading his obituary
five years after he graduated. Write
a poem containing the words “common”
“core,” “differentiate,” and “overdose.”
Write the names of the ones you will never
forget: “Jenna,” “Tiberious,” “Heaven,”
“Megan,” “Tanya,” “Kingsley,” “Ashley,” “David.”
Write Mari with “Nobody’s Baby” tattooed
in cursive on her neck, spitting sixteen bars
in the backrow, as little white Mike beatboxed
“Candy Shop” and the whole class exploded.
Write about Zuly and Nely, sisters
from Guatemala, upon whom a thousand
strange new English words rained down on like hail
each period, and who wrote the story
of their long journey on la bestia
through Mexico, for you, in handwriting
made heavy by the aquís and ayers
ached in their knuckles, hidden by their smiles.
Write an ode to loose-leaf. Write elegies
on the nub nose of a pink eraser.
Carve your devotion from a no. 2
pencil. Write the uncounted hours you spent
fretting about the ones who cursed you out
for keeping order, who slammed classroom doors,
who screamed “you are not my father,” whose pain
unraveled and broke you, whose pain you knew.
Write how all this added up to a life.

 

 

 

For more information on Dante di Stefano, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Alison McGhee

Whether you’re a parent or not, everyone was once someone’s child. This one goes out to all of you. 

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Bargain
     – Alison McGhee

The newspaper reports that at twilight tonight
Venus and Jupiter will conjoin
in the southwestern sky,
a fist and a half above the horizon.
They won’t come together again for seventeen years.
What the article does not say is that Mercury, the
dark planet, will also be on hand.
He’ll hover low, nearly invisible in a darkened sky.
I stare out the kitchen window toward the sunset.

Seventeen years from now, where
will I be?
Mercury, Roman god of commerce and luck,
let me propose a trade:
Auburn hair, muscles that don’t ache, and a seven-minute mile.
Here’s what I’ll give you in return:
My recipe for Brazilian seafood stew, a talent for
French-braiding, an excellent sense of smell and
the memory of having once kissed Sam W.

Then I see my girl across the room.
She stands on a stool at the sink,
washing her toy dishes and
swaying to a whispered song,
her dark curls a nimbus in the lamplight.
The planets are coming together now.
Minute by minute the time draws nigh for me to watch.
Minute by minute my child wipes dry her red
plastic knife, her miniature blue bowls.

Mercury, here’s another offer, a real one this time:
Let her be.
You can have it all in return,
the salty stew, the braids, the excellent sense of smell
and the softness of Sam’s mouth on mine.
And my life. That too.
All of it I give for this child, that seventeen years hence
she will stand in a distant kitchen, washing dishes
I cannot see, humming a tune I cannot hear.

 

Poem of the Week, by Maggie Smith

IMG_E2925This post comes to you after a week in Japan, a country I’d never been before, where the kindness and gentleness of everyone I met almost overwhelmed me. An hour ago I watched the wondrous city of Tokyo recede in the distance below the plane I’m on, and then the sun set, and we headed into a vast stretch of darkness miles above the Pacific Ocean. The sky from inside an airplane is darker, bigger and somehow smaller at the same time. The air outside the window next to me is so thin I’d black out if I breathed it. Everyone in the world breathes the same constantly recycling air. We all inhabit the same small and huge planet. 

During my week in Japan I met hundreds of people who had read and loved my books translated from English into Japanese, a language I don’t understand. But I did understand the look in their eyes when they spoke to me, and they understood the tones of my voice when I spoke back to them. Where do I leave off and the Japanese people begin? Where does the ground leave off and the sky begin? Where does my life end and something else, something unknown, begin? This poem, like every poem by the incomparable Maggie Smith, took my breath away. 

 

Sky, by Maggie Smith 
     Why is the sky so tall and over everything?

What you draw as a blue stripe high above
a green stripe, white-interrupted, the real sky
starts at the tip of each blade of grass and goes
up, up, as far as you can see. Our house stops
at the roof, at the glitter-black overlap of shingles
where the sky presses down, bearing the weight
of space, dark and sparkling, on its back.
Think of sky not as blue, not as over,
but as the invisible surround, a soft suit
you wear close to the skin. When you walk,
the soles of your feet take turns on the ground,
but the rest of you is in the sky, enveloped in sky.
As you move through it, you make a tunnel
in the precise size and shape of your body.

 

For more information on Maggie Smith, please check out her website.

Poem of the Week, by D.R. Goodman

IMG_2137Last week I dreamed a dream so disturbing that I was afraid to google its meaning and asked the Painter to do so for me. The closest interpretation I can find says it’s about something you once dreamed of doing, he said. You want to reclaim something you’ve lost in yourself. 

The interpretation hit me hard. Thinking about it over the next few days, I kept remembering a late afternoon almost twenty years ago when I was wandering trail-less through a quiet forest. At one point I stopped and looked up and met the eyes of an owl looking back at me. This was the first time I had ever seen a living owl. I tilted my head to take it in, and the owl tilted its head the same way. Back and forth we went, observing each other. I don’t know exactly what that owl or this poem below –a poem I’ve held in my heart ever since I first read it–have to do with my terrible, galvanizing dream. But I intend to figure it out. 

 

Owls in the City Hills, by D.R. Goodman

how they hunt us,
casting their deep vowels like feathered hooks,
to pull us from shallow sleep or simple talk,
and out to the night, the stand of eucalyptus

a looming silhouette, the black above us;
we, barefoot on the littered deck, and blind,
stare wide into the dark and hear the sound
move eerily from tree to tree around us;

our backs to the spreading net of city lights
below, we’ve nothing but the trees, our eyes,
the dark, the sound, these owls we cannot see—

though once at dusk, by chance, I saw one light
and spread its wings, and tinged by copper skies,
lay silence to the city, utterly.
For more information on poet and martial arts expert D.R. Goodman, ​please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Louis Simpson

IMG_1960There was a time in my life when, if I saw a dark bird on my lawn staring at me, I worried that someone I loved was about to be hurt. Certain people around me believed in signs and superstitions and I, with porous borders, took on their fears. Living like that is exhausting, and one day, I decided to pay attention to my own radar instead.

But if you’ve gone a long time under the influence of others, it’s hard to reclaim faith in yourself. You have to relearn how to distinguish between false danger and real danger, which is sometimes invisible, like the time in my life when a place I lived in became filled with a menacing energy – I could feel it.

The choices were either move out or fight back. So I hauled the furniture outside and washed it with soap and water. Dragged the rugs out and beat them on the grass. Opened all the windows. Ran around from room to room and outside, waving my arms and yelling at the dark birds to get the hell out of there. It took an afternoon, but by sunset, the place was mine again. You have to fight the forces that want you crushed. When I read this poem below, I got goosebumps. 

 

The Hour of Feeling, by Louis Simpson

Love, now a universal birth,
        From heart to heart is stealing.
        From earth to man, from man to earth:
        —lt is the hour of feeling.
                Wordsworth

A woman speaks:
“I hear you were in San Francisco.
What did they tell you about me?”

She begins to tremble. I can hear the sound
her elbow made, rapping on wood.
It was something to see and to hear—
not like the words that pass for life,
things you read about in the papers.

People who read a deeper significance
into everything, every whisper…
who believe that a knife crossed with a fork
are a signal…by the sheer intensity
of their feeling leave an impression.

And with her, tangled in her hair,
came the atmosphere, four walls,
the avenues of the city
at twilight, the lights going on.

When I left I started to walk.
Once I stopped to look at a window
displaying ice skates and skis.
At another with Florsheim shoes…

Thanks to the emotion with which she spoke
I can see half of Manhattan,
the canyons and the avenues.

There are signs high in the air
above Times Square and the vicinity:
a sign for Schenley’s Whiskey,
for Admiral Television,
and a sign saying Milltag, whatever that means.

I can see over to Brooklyn and Jersey,
and beyond there are meadows,
and mountains and plains.

For more information on Louis Simpson, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by W.S. Merwin

Istanbul, D and pigeonsMy daughter and I were in Istanbul for a week, our first time in a country where the call to prayer sounded five times a day. I remember sitting by the window at sunset as the song of the muezzins rose in the air. It was beautiful and unearthly and I wanted to hold onto it so it would never end. It’s an almost panicky feeling, that wanting to hold on. Long ago, as a means of coping with it, I began to tell myself that You can always come back, Alison

In my heart, pigeons are still fluttering around my daughter on the cobblestones, and we are still wandering the shore of the Bosphorus, and we are both looking up, up, up at the dome of the Hagia Sophia. And then back, back, back I go in time, to the magical moment when she first opened her eyes. Every minute of being alive is its own first and last. You can’t go back.

 

Youth, by W.S. Merwin

Through all of youth I was looking for you
without knowing what I was looking for

or what to call you I think I did not
even know I was looking how would I

have known you when I saw you as I did
time after time when you appeared to me

as you did naked offering yourself
entirely at that moment and you let

me breathe you touch you taste you knowing
no more than I did and only when I

began to think of losing you did I
recognize you when you were already

part memory part distance remaining
mine in the ways that I learn to miss you

from what we cannot hold the stars are made

 
 
 
 
 
​For more information on WS Merwin, please ​read this.

 

Poem of the Week, by Dorianne Laux

IMG_2315The suicide of Alan Krueger last week, a man I didn’t know but whose work I admire, a man clearly beloved by so many, hit me hard. It brought me back to my early twenties, when the suicide of someone I loved both ended his life and permanently altered mine. Crying comes hard to me and does not bring relief, but it came anyway this week. At one point I found myself alone, apologizing out loud for things I wish I’d done differently.

I’m haunted by the sense that the cruelty and hatred so on display these days made things worse for Alan Krueger. It makes things worse for everyone. The only thing I can do, like the poet below, is try to subvert it with kindness.

For the Sake of Strangers, by Dorianne Laux

No matter what the grief, its weight,
we are obliged to carry it.
We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength
that pushes us through crowds.
And then the young boy gives me directions
so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,
waits patiently for my empty body to pass through.
All day it continues, each kindness
reaching toward another – a stranger
singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees
offering their blossoms, a retarded* child
who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.
Somehow they always find me, seem even
to be waiting, determined to keep me
from myself, from the thing that calls to me
as it must have once called to them –
this temptation to step off the edge
and fall weightless, away from the world.   

 

*Note that this poem was published in 1994, when this word was in common usage.

For more information on Dorianne Laux, please check out her website

 

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